My First Serious Access Challenge

This past Tuesday was the first time I experienced an access challenge that went beyond something along the lines of, “We don’t allow dogs in here.” “He’s a service dog.” “Oh, ok.” Or, “Is that a service dog?” “Yes.” “Ok, just checking.”

I was pressed to present “paperwork,” for my dog. Here’s a video of how things transpired with the second employee who approached me.

(Video description on YouTube: Before recording this, I had an initial interaction with a different employee, who insisted I present papers/documentation for my service dog. After quickly asserting my rights with her, she opted to have me talk to someone else, who I was told would be a manager.

This video reflects the entirety of my interaction with the second and final employee who I dealt with.)

My biggest Achilles Heel in this situation was the degree to which I was caught off guard. I’m lucky in that I’ve become accustomed to a partnership devoid of experiences like this one. Business employees rarely give me a second glance- at least not a scrutinizing one- when I enter with Bradley. So, when I was immediately approached in a somewhat hostile manner, being commanded to present documentation that was not legally required of me to either possess or present, I was very taken aback. I’ve experienced a myriad of access challenges, vicariously, through my friends in the service dog community, but it’s entirely different to experience it first hand. This was an invaluable learning experience just as much for me as it was for the employees to whom I asserted my rights and offered an education of theirs.

I do worry how much differently this experience would have been, had I not been prepared with the relevant educational resources about the applicable laws. Of course, I would have continued my effort to remain calm, well spoken and assertive, without compromising any of my rights or responsibilities as a representative of the service dog community. But I’m not sure that, in the absence of printed out educational material, the employees would have been as receptive to what I would have had to say.

This experience validated my position on the use of ID cards for service dogs, whether they’re from scam registries, fake certification companies or even the presentation of a legitimate certification ID for the purpose of gaining access to a place of public accommodation, during a public access dispute. Whoever was there with a dog, legitimate service dog or not, had presented something of that nature, which further cemented the impression in the eyes of management at that business that such documentation is required of service dog handlers. In an effort to make things easier for herself, that person directly affected how much more difficult things were made for me. I have no one to thank but myself, for my preparedness to deal with the ramifications of her decision.

The Quest for My Next Service Dog

As anyone who has been following this blog for quite some time knows, Bradley and I haven’t been partnered with each other terribly long.  I brought him home when he was 11 weeks old and started his training shortly after.  He’s now five years old.

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Looking Ahead to the Future
For the past few years, my plan has been to acquire a puppy candidate to train as his successor.  There are a number of reasons I came to this conclusion.  Foremost is that I want Bradley to be able to retire at his own pace and to be able to ease into it.  That’s a luxury that many service dogs, unfortunately, are not afforded.

Nothing is guaranteed, and when a service dog is suddenly no longer able to work, it’s devastating to both the handler an the dog.  While I can’t predict the future, there is no way to deny that reality or, short of optimal medical care and maintenance, to guarantee against it happening.

My hope for Bradley is that he will live a long, healthy life and maintain his willingness and capability to perform his job for years go come.  That being said, I have established a timeline that I have committed to following, in regard to Bradley’s retirement.  Just thinking about Bradley retiring is enough to stir up painful emotions.  It’s a reality I have to face, though, and it’s better that I do that now than when my hand is forced.

I have chosen to begin the process of retiring Bradley at age eight.  In many cases, handlers choose to work their service dogs as late as ten or more years old.  In Bradley’s case, however, his job is not only mentally demanding but also physically demanding.  It is my belief that he should not be expected to perform his job as he does now, well into his senior years.  I want to provide Bradley with a long, happy retirement, as a very special pet.

The Plan
It takes about two years to train a service dog, from puppyhood.  My goal is to acquire a puppy service dog candidate by the time Bradley is six years old.  He just recently turned five.  This would allow me to take two years to train a puppy into young adulthood, with the hopes that he would be ready to take over for Bradley by the time Bradly turns eight.  Ideally, I would ease Bradley into retirement, working each dog alternately, until Bradley was ready to fully settle into life as a retired service dog and active pet, who would remain a major part of my life.

This means I need to acquire a young puppy within the year.  While that sounds like a liberal amount of time, once one takes into consideration the research that goes into finding a suitable breeder and then waiting until that breeder expects a new litter of puppies, which often only happens once a year, the clock ticks faster and faster.

There are a myriad of breeds that I have researched and have added to my list of breeds to consider for my future service dog candidate.  There are so many factors to take into consideration that there are few who fully meet my criteria for a partner.  Here is a list of some of my top choices of breeds:

Golden Retriever
A Golden Retriever is certainly a safe choice for a service dog candidate.  I have fallen head over heels for the breed.  Right now, however, is the time to explore my options and that is what I’m doing.  If the option presented itself so that I could acquire a suitable Golden Retriever from a compatible breeder, I would jump at the opportunity.

 

German Shepherd Dog (European Working Lines)
The GSD, while a common breed used for service work, is not quite as “safe” a choice as a Golden Retriever.  I’m perfectly comfortable with that.  I’m ready for a dog with more drive,  who is handler oriented, yet capable of thinking independently.

 

 

Belgian Malinois
These dogs are SMART.  Like the GSD, they are pumped full of drive and require a handler who can keep up with them.  I’ve reached the point in my dog handling experience that gives me the confidence that I am capable of a successful partnership with a dog who needs a job and the right handler to meet his needs.

 

Doberman Pinscher
I’ve been dreaming of the day I could call a Doberman my own for over half my life.  This is another highly intelligent breed who thrives with a job.  They can be independent thinkers but are closely bonded to their handlers and sometimes learn faster than their handlers can teach them!

 

Siberian Husky
Yes, I did say Siberian Husky.  This breed is quite unlike any of those listed above.  Aside from the Golden Retriever, they are also the only breed of those listed that I have actually owned.  My experience with my Siberian Husky, Sydney, was one of the best experiences I’ve had with a dog in my entire life.  They are notoriously hard-headed, independent thinkers and almost at the opposite end of the spectrum from Golden Retrievers, when it comes to ‘trainability.’  This is actually a ‘selling point’ for me.  I enjoy working with dogs that command creativity in training and I understand what makes these dogs tick.

Other breeds I’d gladly consider:
Rough Collie
Pit Bull- provided the dog were large enough.  Many are small.
Samoyed
Border Collie
Cane Corso
Malamute
Norwegian Elkhound
Rottweiler

Coming To Terms
This is a position I veery much wish I did not find myself in, but it is par for the course, as an owner trainer.  Not only does the search for compatible breeders present a unique challenge, but it also serves as a very real wake-up call that Bradley is not going to be my service dog forever.

I know that, unlike many working dogs, deep down, Bradley does not have the soul of a die-hard working dog.  He has been a phenomenal partner to me, an eager worker and a fast learner.  I can’t ask for much more than that.  Yet there remains the possibility, as there does with any service dog who is transitioning into retirement, that he will prefer his working life to that of life at home- especially when his position has been filled by another dog.  I plan to do my best to set him up for all the happiness in the world, in his life as a retired service dog.

Undoubtedly, I’ll experience my own type of grieving process, along the way.

Asking For Help
For both our sake, I’ll spare you the details of the circumstances which have contributed to me ending up in a position in which I’ve decided to ask for help from others to fulfill my goal of acquiring a service dog candidate during a very specific window of time.

If you’ve ever visited this blog before, you may have noticed that there is a link to the right that will bring you to a fund raising page.  That fund raising page is an effort to raise money to support the purchase of my next service dog candidate.  I ask that you consider supporting me in this endeavor by making a donation, no matter how small.

However, what I could most benefit from is finding a breeder who would be willing to consider donating a dog to me to train as my service dog.  I realize that this is asking a lot and I hope that you’ll continue to bear with me for just another minute.

I appreciate that giving dogs away may be a hardship on breeders.  However, there are a myriad of reasons why, in the long run, donating a dog for service work can work in a breeder’s favor.  Aside from putting titles on dogs, the pride that would undoubtedly result from producing a dog who successfully made it through training to become a service dog would speak volumes for one’s breeding program.  What better way to assure future puppy buyers that your dogs are of sound temperament than to have an active, working service dog who is enriching the life of a person with a disability?

So here is my plea to breeders, whether you produce a breed that I mentioned above or not: Please consider this tremendous act of kindness while fulfilling your dedication to better your breed to the best of your ability.

Why You Won’t Find Me Without My Service Dog

Every service dog handler will inevitably face a time, during the service dog partnership, when she must choose between participating in an activity without her service dog and sitting it out.  Please take the word “choose,” with a grain of salt, as choice plays a minimal role in the conclusion the handler will reach.

There are three primary reasons why a scenario may present itself, in which a handler may not be able to be accompanied by her service dog:

  • The hosts or other members of the party refuse to accept the presence of the service dog.
    (Situations like these are distinct from those in which a service dog team is denied access from a public accommodation.  The Americans with Disabilities Act protects the right of service dog handlers to be accompanied by their service dogs in all places where the general public is allowed.  The ADA, however, does not apply to private residences, where scenarios like these are likely to take place). If a friend or family member is hosting a get-together, at a private residence, she is within her legal rights to choose not to invite a service dog team or to invite the person with a disability, with the stipulation that the service dog is not welcome.  Other scenarios may involve a friend or family member who simply refuses to go somewhere with the person with a disability, if the service dog is to come along…and so on.
  • The service dog is sick, injured or otherwise unable to work.
    It’s inevitable that, at some point during a service dog’s working career, he or she will be taken out of commission by illness, injury or other changes in his ability to work.  Something like a respiratory infection, injured paw or just a single day of having an upset stomach is enough reason to take the dog off-duty, until he’s back to his normal, healthy condition.
  • The environment or nature of the activity is incompatible with safe handling practices, compromises the welfare of the service dog or is simply inaccessible to a service dog team.
    These scenarios can vary significantly from one service dog team to the other, depending on the needs of the particular dog and what his job involves.  Some handlers may not want to expose their service dogs to extremely loud noises, so they may avoid concerts, movie theaters, events with fireworks or other similar environments.  Other activities simply may not be possible for a person with a disability to take part in, with her service dog, like some outdoor recreational sports.

It will be much easier for others to understand why choice has minimal influence on a service dog handler’s decision not to participate in any particular activity when the analogy is made between the role a service dog plays in his disabled handler’s life and that of which any other medical equipment would.  While our service dogs are certainly much more than inanimate objects, their jobs help us in a similar manner to any piece of medical equipment or other auxiliary aid.  It would be unreasonable to expect a physically disabled individual to forgo the use of her wheelchair or cane, a person with diabetes not to use a glucose test meter, a person with a severe allergy to leave her EpiPen behind, and other such restrictions.  It is equally unfair to expect a person with a disability to participate in activities without the help of her service dog.  In most cases, a piece of medical equipment can never offer the amount of assistance that a trained service dog can.

Bradley lies under my chair at my best friend’s wedding.

Once a person with a disability welcomes a service dog into her life, doors open and the world gets bigger for the handler.  In general, it should be assumed that, at the handler’s discretion, wherever she goes, her service dog will be with her.  Of course, sometimes exceptions must be made, when circumstances are beyond the handler’s control.  Because each service dog team is unique, the allowances for exceptions will vary.

Not only do service dogs enhance the independence their handlers experience, but they also provide life-saving assistance.  The invaluable skills that service dogs offer not only make it possible for their handlers to get out of the house safely, but also improve the degree of enjoyment the handlers get out of these experiences.

How All of this Relates to Bradley and I
Since Bradley has been working as my service dog, I have been fortunate enough to have very few experiences in which I have had to decide whether or not to leave the home without him.  Most of these have been limited to short-lived health related problems, on Bradley’s end, like occasional upset stomachs.  My friends and family have learned, over the past two years or so, that Bradley goes everywhere I go.

Like many service dog handlers, I embrace a “policy” of, “If my service dog can’t go, neither can I.”  When circumstances are at least somewhat within my control, I will make almost no exceptions.  Being accompanied by Bradley is an accommodation that is necessary for my well-being.  That means, regardless of the nature of the outing, whether it’s a funeral, wedding, dinner at a restaurant, trip to the zoo, walk in the park, going to church, visiting family, a trip to the ER or admittance into the hospital, it’s a given that, as long as he’s able to, Bradley will remain at my side.

Bradley sits attentively, next to my stretcher, in the ER.

Why Am I So ‘Rigid’?
I’ve consistently felt that it should never be expected of a service dog handler to justify her need to be accompanied by her service dog, under any circumstances, to anyone who isn’t legally obligated to verify such need for accommodation.  The assessment of the handler’s need for the assistance of her service dog should first be made at the sole discretion of the person with a disability.  Only she can fully grasp what she can safely do with and without her service dog.  When others presume to make such an assessment of their own, they are, despite their best intentions, doing so out of some degree of ignorance.  Asking the person with the disability how she can best be accommodated is the only accurate manner in which to obtain this information.

I’m happy to go into some detail about why I need to be accompanied by Bradley, as an accommodation to mitigate my disabilities but want to emphasize that, by doing so, I’m not promoting an expectation that other handlers should be as comfortable in doing so, themselves.

The assistance service dogs provide to their disabled handlers is unmatched by help that may be offered by well-meaning friends, family members and other members of a party.  In my experience, the most prevalent response to the prospect of my missing out on an experience, as a result of Bradley’s inability to attend, is the suggestion that those who will be with me can pick up the slack.  This isn’t true.

While Bradley happens to play multiple roles, as a service dog (guide dog, psychiatric service dog, mobility assistance dog), a combination of roles that no single human could assume, in regard to other service dog teams, the type of work the service dog’s job involves is generally irrelevant when assessing the person’s need for the dog’s assistance.  A service dog team is just that, a team.  Not only do we learn how to receive the help our service dogs have to offer, but the teamwork between the handler and service dog also fosters a bond which allows the two to communicate almost effortlessly and, ultimately, more effectively than could be achieved with a human helper.  This is very true of my relationship with Bradley, which means that a human helper may less than suffice to meet my needs.

  • Bradley’s role as a guide dog: It’s likely that folks may assume that this part of Bradley’s job is easily interchangeable with the help of a human guide or a mobility cane.  It is true that I am trained in Orientation and Mobility, the skill that facilitates independent navigation for the blind, with the use of a long mobility cane. When Bradley is not able to work as a guide for me, I must use my cane to navigate my environment.  Please don’t presume to believe that the use of a mobility cane is just as sufficient for mobility as a guide dog.  While some blind individuals’ opinions on this may vary, in my case, I will always prefer the security of a well trained, sentient assistant: my guide dog.Human guides can certainly be helpful, but until one acts as one, I don’t think most people appreciate just how much responsibility is assumed in this role.  There must be precise communication between the guide and the blind individual and the guide must learn to navigate for two, remaining acutely aware of potential hazards in the environment.  Without prior instruction, the guide may not possess such skill.  Furthermore, few blind people have enough experience working with human guides to navigate their surroundings as safely as they would with the more familiar cane or guide dog.
  • Bradley’s role as a psychiatric service dog: This part of Bradley’s job is nearly impossible for a human helper to replicate.  Bradley is trained to recognize subtle cues that indicate I am in or approaching a state of distress.  Likewise, I’ve learned to respond to the signals Bradley gives me, as discretely as if we had our own language- and we practically do.  Any assistance a human helper may be able to offer, in regard to this part of my disability would likely amount to “too little, too late.”
  • Bradley’s role as a mobility assistance dog: The work Bradley performs to assist me with my mobility impairments are primarily of a preventative nature.  This means that he performs various tasks to prevent me from falling.  While a human helper could certainly offer a degree of physical assistance, in this area, I would remain limited in what I could do.  And, depending on the activity, I could be so limited that the entire experience would be unsafe.

Photo credit: Wind Over Wings
This is Teddy, a Saw Whet Owl at Wind Over Wings (a raptor rescue I volunteered for) I chose not to bring Bradley to the raptor rescue because I felt it would be an incompatible match for all parties. I was cleaning cages and wouldn’t be able to handle Bradley. I’m sure some of the animals would have taken issue Bradley’s presence. Working with other animals, who are not compatible with dogs, have been the few times when I have chosen to leave Bradley home. It was my choice to do so.

Modifying My Rule
As referenced earlier, there are almost never exceptions to the rule that if Bradley cannot go, I cannot go.  However, life does happen and it doesn’t always go as planned.  While I may make modifications to plans, to allow myself to participate in an activity without Bradley, by doing so, I am making a tremendous sacrifice.  I’ve learned, from past experience, that my choice to leave the house without Bradley can have devastating consequences.  In those situations, I’ve consistently found myself reprimanding myself for having known better.  I will advocate for my “choice” to the end of the Earth, and I believe I’ve learned my lesson about which is the right one for me: Keeping Bradley by my side.

Why Don’t I Utilize Alternative Means of Assistance for Myself?
I do!  Having a service dog doesn’t “fix” everything.  Despite the extent of help Bradley provides me with, his assistance is only one outlet for mitigating my disabilities.  I do depend on him for my independence, but without additional resources, the degree to which my disabilities affect my life would be significantly altered.  Neither the additional means of assistance, nor my partnership with Bradley are intended to replace the other.  Bradley is part of the equation of resources I use to live a fuller life; a large part of the equation, at that!

What Bradley and I Have Been Up To: Part 1

As referenced in my previous post, Bradley graduated from “In Training,” status to “Service Dog.”  Anyone, who has read my last post, before I stopped updating this blog, may be scratching their heads, at this point.  Where I last left off, I had made the determination that Bradley could not meet my needs as a service dog.  I made the difficult decision to apply for a guide dog from Guiding Eyes for the Blind.  That is where the roller coaster began.

The Ups and Downs of a Dream Come True
I initiated the application process with the guide dog school of my choice, Guiding Eyes for the Blind (GEB).  After hours and hours of research, I decided that GEB was the best match for me.  I was incredibly impressed with everything I learned about them and was absolutely giddy about the prospect of acquiring a guide dog from them.  Within about a month of completing the entire application process, including the home interview, I received word that I had been accepted into their program and would be contacted once the right dog and an opening in a class was found for me.

What a surprise it was, when I received that phone call, and my heart sank down into my stomach.  I should have been ecstatic.  Where had my giddiness gone?  I had just been told that a dream I had, for most of my life, was coming true.  I must have sounded like the most underwhelmed future GEB student that the admissions director had ever given this news to.

Throughout the month of waiting, my confidence in my decision to acquire a guide dog from a school had waxed and waned.  At one point, I learned that if I was accepted into the school, I would receive a phone call, but if I was not accepted, I would receive a letter.  Each day I held my breath, as I sifted through the mail, dreading a letter from Guiding Eyes.  At times, I maintained a level of eager anticipation that I would receive a call, and not a letter..  At others, however, I secretly hoped that it wasn’t in the stars for me to be accepted, at that point in my life.  I was so conflicted that I didn’t know whether I would be devastated by rejection, or if there was a chance that having the decision completely out of my hands would lift the weight I was constantly carrying on my shoulders.

After receiving the call that told me I had been accepted, the roller coaster of emotions that I had been experiencing gained exponential momentum.  My life was about to change.  I had a fairy tale-like image in my mind, that once I acquired a guide dog, doors would open for me that, before, were neither possible, nor fathomable.

Why Wasn’t I Thrilled with the Realization of my Dream?

Even without Bradley acting as a guide dog for me, I was dependent on our partnership to get through day to day life.

Around the time when all this activity surrounding my acceptance into Guiding Eyes was happening, Bradley was about two years old.  Because I started training him when he was so young, we had a two year working partnership under our belts.  Even though I was accepted by GEB, I planned to continue Bradley’s training.  I told myself and others that I made that decision so I could switch dogs, depending on what I needed most in a particular situation (ex. If I felt that I would need psychiatric assistance, which was Bradley’s strong point, I would take him out with me, while if I knew that it was guiding that I needed most, I would take my guide dog out with me).  What I was afraid to admit to myself was that there would never be a cut and dry situation in which I could determine which type of assistance (guiding or psych) I needed more than the other- I needed both, all the time.  I gradually became more cognizant of the fact that I would always choose Bradley.

The bond between Bradley and I had been set in stone.  To abandon that, for a partnership with another dog, would likely do irreparable damage.  That was not a risk I was willing to take.  Whether I alternated service dogs or not, I knew I would need to spend significantly more time with one dog than the other, in order to maintain the bond that a working partnership fosters.  I also knew that, by accepting a guide from GEB, I would be making a significant commitment to them, which would include making a partnership between my guide and I the first priority.  Knowing this broke my heart.  I couldn’t allow myself to make Bradley my second priority.

Every time I pondered my decision, the knowledge that one decision would undo, what took two years to accomplish, brought me to tears.  Of course, Bradley and I would maintain a strong bond, but it would be limited to the nature of a bond between a pet dog owner and her dog.  I would still love him, as if he were my child, but there’s no denying that spending every minute of every day together and having a relationship in which one of us gave the other the invaluable gift of independence, produced a connection like no other.

This is the type of relationship I would have to form with a guide dog for us to work as a team.  I would have to spend the majority of my time with my guide dog, while entrusting my life with that dog.  Without that trust and deep connection, our partnership would inevitably be limited.  That can be a recipe for disaster for a service dog team.

I slowly came to terms that, both logically and psychologically, I simply could not walk away from my partnership with Bradley.  It was unshakable and it was imperative for me to keep it that way.  As I reached that conclusion, I humbly thanked the wonderful people at GEB for the exceptional treatment they had shown me and explained that I wasn’t ready for the precious gift they had offered me.  It was a bittersweet experience making that phone call, but I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it was the right thing for me to do.

Adults Say the Darndest Things

As a service dog handler, one must expect to hear a wide variety of comments and questions from strangers on a regular basis.  It’s very common and completely normal, as there are still many people who have never seen a service dog team and don’t expect to encounter a dog in a public place.  There are several recurrent comments that service dog handlers get used to hearing, like “look at the dog!” Most of the things people say are innocent and questions are asked out of genuine curiosity.  However, there are a variety of things people have said and done that are ignorant or unacceptable.

Everyone’s An Expert
“You should do this [insert completely irrelevant training method here] instead of what you’re doing.”
Apparently there are a lot more people moonlighting as service dog trainers than I realized!  Among some of the irritating comments strangers make, are those that are intended to tell me how I should be training or handling my service dog.  I understand that some people interject with good intentions, but I have yet to encounter anyone who has made it clear to me that they have a solid professional dog training background or even service dog training experience.   I’m no professional trainer myself, but I do know my dog and I certainly know myself, which are the two most important factors in training one’s own service dog.

On the other end of the spectrum are dog owners who think that by training my own service dog, I must be interested in training their dogs.  I don’t mind this as much because at least these people have some faith in my competence.

Thanks, I’ll be here all week.  Try the veal!
Have you ever walked into a room and felt like everyone was looking at or talking about you?  If you walked into the room with a service dog, that would be true.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, the vast majority of the general public takes the presence of a service dog as an open invitation to ask about the handler’s disability.  A related phenomenon is the assumption that the handler must be comfortable hearing complete strangers openly discuss this disability, as if he or she can’t hear them.

As I see it, there really is no polite way to bring up someone’s disability in conversation.  Some service dog handlers have no problem openly discussing their disability with others because it’s a means of educating others.  However, others have no desire to and that should be respected.  Leave it to the handler to broach the subject during conversation.

There certainly isn’t a polite way to talk about a service dog handler’s disability with someone else, as if the handler isn’t even there.  I’ve found that this occurs most often in the check-out lines at stores.  Perhaps the tension of impatient shoppers changes social dynamics in a manner that makes people feel it’s acceptable to talk about one another in an audible voice.  In reality, 99% of what I hear people discuss about me or my service dog is not said with any malice whatsoever.  However, it would be nice not to be treated like an art exhibit, constantly getting obvious stares peppered with colorful commentary.

That’s life as a service dog handler though. There will always be people who are enthralled with or aghast by the presence of a dog where one doesn’t expect to see one.  Please try to keep in mind that service dog handlers are living, breathing humans with feelings too.

Blatant Disregard
Many service dogs wear a vest or other accessories with patches that say something along the lines of “Please don’t pet me.  I’m working.”  If people obeyed road signs and traffic lights like they respected this request, driving down the street would be a near death experience.

You’d be amazed at how some people react to reading patches like these.  I’ve heard everything from, “Aww, it says please don’t pet me I’m working,” as if Bradley was playing dress-up as a service dog, to people reading the patch and immediately proceeding to pet him.

There have even been parents with such audacity to tell their children to pet the dog anyway because the handler is blind and won’t know the dog is being pet!
1. A blind handler can tell when her dog is being distracted.
2. Most of the people who have heard parents say this to their children are not blind.
3. This should go without saying: No child should ever approach or touch any dog without permission from the dog’s owner.  Encouraging a child to do this is not only inconsiderate, but it’s also putting the child at risk for being bitten!

Honorary Mention

“He looks mean.” – This was said by an adult, as Bradley was sleeping on the floor, being as far from intimidating as he could possibly be.

“Does he bite?”- No, but that doesn’t mean you may pet him.

“That’s animal abuse!” – Really?  I’m pretty sure he prefers it to staying home with nothing to do.

“Does he read your mind to know where to go?” – That would be some service dog!

Bradley’s First Task

Teaching Bradley to retrieve is like teaching water to be wet; retrieving is just what he does.  There are plenty of retrieving skills I could incorporate into his training, but there are few I really need.   There are two skills I do need him to use that involve retrieving, and he mastered one of them tonight.

The first is picking up a dropped object.  This isn’t because I’m physically unable to pick it up, but because most of the time, I won’t see where the object fell.  He’s got this down, for the most part.  This skill could use some more proofing but nothing serious.  If I wanted to demonstrate it for someone, I’d feel confident doing so.

The second task is more important to me: a blind retrieve.  This is the task he mastered for the first time tonight.  Not only did I ask him to retrieve my phone for me, but I first asked him to find the phone.  I didn’t know where it was and he didn’t know where it was, so it was more than a matter of sending him to the object.  He had to maintain concentration on a goal: finding the phone.

Since retrieving comes so easily to him, I didn’t have to do very much training for this skill.  It was just a variation of what he already knows how to do.  I started building up to this point yesterday, by showing him my phone, putting it down where he could see it and asking him to get it. Next, I put the phone where he couldn’t see it, like on the kitchen counter, and asked him to get it.  I’d indicate the general area where the phone was, and he’d quickly find it.  Realizing how easy this was for him, I took a leap of faith and decided to move onto the final product.

I was sitting down in a room that I knew the phone was not in but beyond that, I had no idea where it was.  Bradley was in the room with me and I said, “Go find my phone.”  I wasn’t completely sure he’d succeed, so it was a risky move.

Bradley is most accustomed to retrieving toys.  Since it’s pretty much all he does all day, every day, it’s not surprising that his first inclination is to associate retrieving with play time.  Each time I’ve asked him to find the phone without him knowing where it was from the get-go, his initial reaction was to retrieve a toy.  When he does that, I gently tell him, “not that” and he drops the toy, continuing the search for the phone.

As I sat in suspense, hoping he’d come back with the phone, I heard his stuffed duck toy quack.  I laughed in my head, still hoping for success.  A couple moments later, he proudly trotted into the room with my phone is his mouth!  I’m so proud of him!

This skill still needs a good deal of proofing.  I need him to go directly for the phone more often, and not go for a toy first. Once he reliably retrieves the phone on the first try, I’ll start teaching him the names of new objects I need him to retrieve, like my keys, my purse, his leash, etc.

While this skill needs a little bit of cleaning up, that’s OK. This is still a huge success. Searching for something without my help is something completely new to him and certainly is one of the most important elements of guide work.

Eventually, I’ll ask him to find things and take me to them.  He’ll have to find the car we came in, the person we came with, the door we came in through and an empty seat in a crowded movie theater or auditorium.  I’m even more confident in his ability to actively search for and differentiate between things than I was before he mastered this simple, yet significant skill.

On a side note, Bradley deserves an extra pat on the back for making my life a little easier today.  I made the brave decision to walk Bradley and Lex together this afternoon.  Bradley walks very well on leash, but Lex is all over the place. Keeping Lex from getting underfoot (mine or Bradley’s) while holding onto Bradley’s leash takes concentration.  On the way back home, I had an extra item (read: back of poop) to hold onto.  It was turning into quite the juggling act.  I asked Bradley to carry his leash, which he does frequently.  Bradley conveniently walked himself home, remaining in heel position, so I could handle Hurricane Lexington.

Bradley Holds his Leash

This is a picture of Bradley holding his leash, taken in May 2009.

Joe ended up pulling into the driveway just as I was approaching home and beeped at us.  Once I got to the top of the hill, Bradley had to muster up every ounce of self control he had within himself not to run over to “Daddy.”  Joe was amazed at the verbal control I had over him.  I was pretty proud of Bradley myself!